A Theoretical Understanding

By H. Keith Henson and Arel Lucas


Published to the Newsgroup sci.cryonics Friday December 10, 1993.

The March '89 Cryonics carried Dave Kekich's article "A Practical Memorial." It was about Oz, Dave's friend who did not make it into suspension when he needed it--despite many qualities you would think predisposed him to consider cryonics. Not the least of these predispositions was having a close friend long active in cryonics. In the article, Dave focused on his sense of failure as a cryonics salesman in his effort to understand why Oz did not make suspension arrangements. The article has prompted us to spend some time in front of our word processors on another way to view the problem of "selling cryonics"-- in terms of the genetic origin of humans and the memetic origin of culture. In this discussion, there are deep connections to evolution, which itself is well rooted in our understanding of the physical world around us. Because of the need for background, we will wander a long way from the immediate problem of getting people to make cryonic suspension arrangements, but by the time we get back, you might have a deeper appreciation of the difficulties of "selling" the cryonics concept.

Most readers of Cryonics understand that we arrived at our current physical structure (which includes everything--genes, jawbones and brains) through the process of evolution, that is through random variation and very non-random survival. About 4.5 million years ago our branch of the primate tree split from our nearest relatives the chimpanzees when the climate changed, and the shrinking forest left them "high and dry." (All this is current best guess, but there is a large collection of evidence.) An entire suite of physical and behavioral changes seems to have happened together.

Chimpanzees today have behaviors, such as sharing meat, that our common ancestors are likely to have had. This tendency seems to have been elaborated by our male ancestors into a steady provisioning of the females and young by bringing food to them from the encroaching, but highly productive, protein-rich plains. (As opposed to the chimps' way of life where the females provide virtually all food for the young and the males guard the territory.) Incidentally, compared to forest, grasslands provide a lot of meat per square mile.

It is likely our common ancestor could walk upright for a short distance since chimps can do it. Walking upright for ever further distances had an advantage because the males who could free their hands for carrying food in this changed situation were more successful in the number of children who carried their genes in the next generation. Of course this took place in social groups, so there was continual selection for: genes that made cooperative behavior more likely; genes to exploit others cooperation; and genes to resist being suckered. Computer evolution simulations (see Selfish Gene) of such situations lead to stable mixes of reproductive strategies similar to what are actually observed in human populations.

As genes became more common which (through the process of embryogenesis) constructed males more and more likely to work (mostly in groups) to feed their mates and children, other traits became advantageous. Sequestered estrous (as opposed to the flamboyant chimpanzee event), continual sexual receptivity, and a tendency toward monogamy (and jealousy) all tend to genetically reward provisioning males. All of this culminated in the several-million-year old institution of the human family.&

The net effect of all these changes was to about double the reproductive rate of proto-humans compared to the chimpanzees. Our ancestors needed the high reproductive rate because the plains were dangerous places (no trees to climb). A lot of them seem to have been eaten by leopards and the other large predators of the time.

Some 2.5 million years ago we find the first evidence of worked stone. While even chimpanzees pass cultural knowledge, such as how to catch termites, from generation to generation, worked stone is the first surviving evidence that our ancestors started passing down the generations complex, non-genetic, behavior- influencing information. This information can be said to program high level "agents" in the mind which are invoked to do or make things. About the same time, the brain size of our forebears started to increase substantially over the chimpanzee's. Tool making and larger brains probably influenced each other in a positive feedback cycle.

Those able to learn the more complex tasks from those around them must have had a significant survival advantage, in spite of the increased maternal and infant mortality from getting those larger brains delivered.

As the information of how to chip rock and other such discoveries was passed on to larger numbers of the very people whose survival it enhanced, a new evolving entity, the "meme" [FN1] or replicating information pattern became increasing significant.

Genes are totally dependent on cells; complex memes are no less dependent on large human brains. Memes run the gamut from essential symbionts to dangerous parasites. They evolve, and, in particular, they have co-evolved with the human line. In the aggregate, they constitute culture. The memetic information passed down from generation to generation exceeded our genetic data some time ago.

As human brains enlarged they improved in the ability to anticipate changes, making plans to hunt, to move with the seasons, and, later, to plant seeds for a future harvest. These and similar "smart" behaviors have obvious survival advantages, but they may have disadvantages as well. Alas, it seems that it is quite possible to be too smart for "the good of one's genes." A contemporary example is the statistical fact that highly intelligent people have significantly fewer children than the norm. For very different reasons, people of subnormal intelligence also have lower-than-average reproductive success.

Many traits of populations that have a bell curve distribution are trimmed by some form of selection on both ends. If they were not, natural selection on individuals on one end of the curve would cause the population norm to drift until a new norm was reached where individuals far out from the norm in either direction suffered reduced reproductive success in about the same amounts.

Being able to anticipate the future may not have been an unmixed blessing for early humans. Besides worrying about what to eat in the morning, and how to get through the night without being eaten, our ancestors could worry about existential angst, and ponder questions of the "Where Was I Before I Was Me?" and "What Happens After I Die?" kind. It may sound silly, but such questions, prompted by frequent deaths among those around you may have been a barrier for hundreds of thousands of years to the emergence of smarter people with enhanced ability to anticipate and plan for the future. It is not good for your genes to be dwelling on such questions while something large, furry, and not in the least concerned about angst, sneaks up and nips off your head! [FN2]

We know that eventually smarter people did emerge, and came to dominate the world. This started about 200,000 years ago, roughly the same time that DNA studies indicate that one woman was the common ancestor of us all. Like chipped rock and larger brains emerging together, it is possible that some meme mutated out of more primitive ones, or arose from observations to form a "religious belief" that provided "answers" to such questions and had the effect of compensating for genes that otherwise would made us too smart for our own (genetic) good. Beliefs that could fit this description are known to go back to the very beginning of written history, and archaeological digs produce physical evidence (flower grave offerings) of such beliefs back at least 70,000 years. (The actual timing is not important to this argument, but objects believe to be "religious" in nature became common by about 35,000 years ago.)

"Religious" memes compensating for too-smart-for-their-own-good brains is rank speculation, but Marvin Minsky argues that more complex brains are inherently less stable. It is true that our more remote relatives (such as cows) seem to have fewer mental problems, perhaps just because they have less "mental." His thought**** is that certain "agents" built with patterns from outside could enhance the stability of a complex mind. He discussed a variety of mental "agents" in Society of Mind, reviewed in Cryonics some time ago. One class, censors, would be especially useful if kept someone's mind from spiraling down into a blue funk over unanswerable questions. Ideas that when a family member died he had gone to "the happy hunting grounds," and that you would see him again might make a big difference in the survival of grief-stricken relatives. Jane Goodall's report of a case where a chimpanzee seems to have died of grief gives this model some credibility. (The chimp was believed to have had an abnormally strong attachment to his mother.)

This is very speculative, but "religious" memes could have "functions" such as reducing the effects of grief or answering philosophical questions about which it was (genetically) unprofitable to ponder. These memes would be favored in a causal loop if they improve the survival of people carrying genes which tend to destablize a person's mental state, but otherwise improve their survival.

Such genes might (for example) contribute to intelligence, sensitivity, and forming strong emotional attachments. After a few millennia, religious memes and conditionally advantageous genes would become quite dependent on each other. In an environment saturated with religious memes, there would be little pressure for minds to evolve that could get by without stabilizing memes.

In turn, the religious memes that originated long ago have had plenty of time to split into varieties, compete for hosts, and themselves evolve in response to a changing environment. (An occasional variation may kill its hosts, a la Jim Jones.) A lay observer looking for similarities over such a period might not recognize much common ritual. (Joseph Campbell devoted his life to discovering common threads in ritual.) Both modern and ancient religions seem to "fit" into similar places in the mind, and have the similar functions of providing "answers" to the unanswerable, and comfort to the grief stricken.

The environment in those minds (mostly the result of other memes) has greatly changed as people accumulated more observations about the world around them and got better at manipulating it. There are known changes in the history of religion, such as the tendency for monotheistic religions (in the western cultural tradition) to replace polytheistic ones, and the well known tendency for religions (and similar belief patterns) to mutate into new and competing varieties. We can see some (the written part) of the accumulated variation. For example, the religion of the Old Testament is recognizably the ancestor of the more recent New Testament.

Because humans learn from other adults as well as parents, religious beliefs that are "better suited" to infect human minds could spread, even (if it survived translation) across language boundaries. (Islam simply imposed Arabic on its converts.) In Europe during early historical times, we can see the displacement of older religions with Christianity. Within Christianity we can see in recent historical times competing varieties mutate from earlier versions (a classic example would be the Mormons) and within the US in the last decades we have seen the arrival of both new "religions" such as Scientology, and the repeated importation of eastern religions. (Almost all new and transplanted religions fail--we only see the ones which grow large enough to notice.)

Because human minds usually hold only one religion at a time, religious memes are in "competition" for a limited number of human minds. This sets up the conditions for a powerful "evolutionary struggle" between religious memes. You should expect the memes which survive this process to resist being displaced, and to induce their hosts to propagate them.

How (at long last!) does this relate to the difficulty of selling cryonics? We submit that the long term mental changes that happen to people who make cryonics arrangements have a lot in common with religious conversions. Logically, cryonics should be considered a low tech way to reach high tech medicine, no more exciting than iron lungs, or pacemakers. Alcor, of course, is not a religion; it doesn't aspire even to be a cult. However, the mental "agents" the cryonics idea constructs in people's minds have the same "deflect or modify thoughts about death" effect as some of the mental agents most religious memes build. The cryonics memes seem to "fit" into the "mental space" in people that is often occupied by a religion. As a result people class it as one, or something closely related. Unfortunately, this is a hotly contested spot in the mind! Memes of this class usually include a submeme, "this is the only true belief, listen to no others."#

Religious memes (including such beliefs as reincarnation) build lasting, often lifelong, agents in human minds. This part of human minds where these agents are located seems to be particularly resistant to change, perhaps because the "function" of these memes is not much related to the way "this world" operates. That is, one belief in this category is about as good for you (and your genes) as the next. If this is the case, switching holds little advantage, and the process of modifying anything close to this area may be dangerous to mental stability. Cryonics (if it works) is very much of an exception to the rule.

On the other hand, the stability of religious beliefs may have little to do with human survival. It simply may be a characteristic of the surviving (and therefore observable) religious memes.

The difficulty of changing from one religion to another, or adding cryonics to your meme set may be compounded by "censor agents" (as Minsky calls them) that keep deflecting your thoughts away from thinking about anything to do with death. As much as anything censor agents may lie at the root of the remarkable degree of procrastination, that you often see in the cryonics signup process. (The complexity of the paperwork does not help either!)

We wish we could use the memetic model to make specific suggestions which would allow us all to go out and sign up the world, or even to save our parents. We can't. The best we can do is suggest that since most of the mental environment in which the cryonic meme may take root is determined by other memes, getting the word out about related subjects may be critically important to the "selling" of cryonics. A person who knows about nanotechnology/cell repair machines is much more likely to be infectable by the cryonics meme. So are the people who hold the computer viewpoint of minds and brains.

Another possibility is that our friends or relatives may eventually become more responsive. They are likely to be among that majority, "not the first by whom the new is tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside." Frequent exposure to an idea lessens the outrageousness of it. Cryonics is, after all, becoming more respectable. Being dismissed by "most scientists" as the newspaper stories state is properly interpreted as being accepted by "some scientists." On the other hand, part of the fear factor about cryonics is the possibility that it would work, and you would be revived all alone in a future without friends. This may be a large part of the problem of signing up our parents. Though we may respect them, the world has changed so much over a single generation that it is hard to have much in common with them. (And for that matter, it is hard to have much in common with your children either!) Perhaps we should get our oldest signed up members (the ones I have met are really nice people) to travel about and talk to our parents.

The memetic model gives some insight into the difficulty the idea of cryonics faces in a world of competing memes, but the picture is far from bleak. While cryonics has grown slowly, the growth rate has increased in the last few years. It would not surprise us for the cryonics "movement" to experience spectacular growth*** over the next decade or two, especially if noticeable progress is made on our real goal, life extension which will eliminate the need for cryonic suspension entirely.



& An alternate scenario could be constructed, a sex-for-meat swap, starting with females who were somewhat receptive even when not in estrous. Same result.

1. First defined in The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins 1976)

2. At least if it does it before you have lots of kids, and have helped raise lots of grandkids. The recognition of this fact is reflected in the Chinese tradition that those who would attempt to understand the I Ching--a contemplative task bound to invoke troubling questions--are traditionally warned off doing so until they have completed the parental phase of life, and secured the future of their grandchildren.

**** Personal communication through Eric Drexler.

# Douglas Hoffstadter and one of us (Arel) prefers to look at a meme as complex as a religion as "a scheme of memes," that is, evolutionary bound cooperating groups of memes similar to the way mutually advantageous genes are sometimes grouped on cronosomes. Dawkins discussed the mutual propagation of the God/Hellfire memes in The Selfish Gene.)

Unreferenced footnotes (?)
* We doubt many realize it at the time. When we made arrangements with Alcor it was just the logical thing to do, given our understanding of nanotechnology. It was only with the threats to Alcor, and its patients, over the Dora Kent affair that made us realize how important cryonics had become to us.

** As an aside, there actually seems to be a very small chunk of brain tissue that might be called a "religious stabilizing module." In rare cases where this area was destroyed, the victims could change what seemed to be deeply held religious beliefs several times a week! [**can you find the source for this?**]


Created: March 16, 2001
Last Modified: March 16, 2001
HTML Editor: Robert J. Bradbury